Editor’s Note: Books We Can’t Quit features reviews of beloved texts in any genre that are at least ten years old.
I first read Aidan Chambersâ€™s novel Dance on My Grave on August 17, 1994, when I was fifteen years old.Â I know this because it made a big enough impression on me that I wrote about it in the journal that, eighteen years later, I still have on my shelf.Â Although that journal entry doesnâ€™t say much beyond, â€œI read a great book this weekend,â€ itâ€™s impossible to overstate how much Dance on My Grave meant to me.Â I read it again and again.Â I knew its place on the shelf, and sometimes when I was at the Bethlehem Library I would go visit it, just to touch the spine and look at it, even if I wasn’t planning on checking it out. I can still remember the cover of that old edition: bright green, with white type and a picture of a newspaper clipping on the front.
Like so many books written for teenagers, Dance on My Grave is both a love story and a coming of age tale.Â In this case, the romance occurs between Hal and Barry, two boys in a seaside town in southern England.Â Hal and Barry are typical teenagers; their affair occurs against a backdrop of trouble with parents and nagging questions about The Future, and is marred by the recognizable teenage mixture of bad decisions, impulsiveness, and overreaction.Â But they are both boys and thatâ€™s where the story diverges from the typical, or at least from what was typical in my world in the summer of 1994.
At fifteen I was just coming out, and I was starving for images of queer people in books, in movies, on TV, anywhere.Â I couldnâ€™t have articulated that at the time–I don’t think I even realized what it was that I was so desperately seeking.Â But Dance on My Grave was the first book that I ever read about gay characters, and that’s a large part of why it became so hugely important to me.Â I read it in my room with the door closed, holding my breath, barely trusting the words on the pageâ€”was I really reading what I thought I was reading?Â I got intensely involved in the love affair between Hal and Barry, amazed at the frankness with which Hal expressed his longing for Barry and at the frankness with which Chambers depicted both the emotional and physical aspects of their relationship.
But then I went away to college, and I moved away from home, and I stopped going to my old library.Â I grew up; my cultural milieu shifted.Â I lost track of the book.Â I looked it up on the internet once and found that it was out of print. For a few years I checked on it periodically, whenever it popped into my head: nope, always still out of print. I gave up.
Dance on My Grave was reissued by Amulet Books in 2008, and I got my hands on a copy as soon as I found out.Â I was full of that nagging fear that always crops up when re-reading a book you loved a long time agoâ€”itâ€™s not just the fear that the book may be no good, but also the fear of digging into a past self, turning yourself however briefly back into the fifteen-year-old you used to be.Â But I had nothing to fear.Â I was still 33 when I finished, and more importantly the book was good.Â Not perfect, but in some ways actually better than I recalled.Â I remembered almost every detail of the plot, but did not remember the minimalist beauty of some of Chambersâ€™s best scenes, nor the lightness and cleverness of his prose, as in this warning issued by Hal early in the novel:
If you do not want to read about Death, and if you do not want to read about a dead body that I knew when it was alive and still a he, and if you do not want to read about the things that happened to he and me before he became it, and about how he became it, you had better stop right here.Â Now.
I had forgotten how smart Hal is as a narrator, and how good Chambers is at conveying humor, pain, and obsession in the voice of a fiercely intelligent sixteen-year-old.Â If I had been reading Dance on My Grave for the first time, I probably would have said that it was good rather than great.Â Instead it is the beloved book of my fifteen-year-old self, lost to me for many years–the prodigal book returned! So I can forgive the fact that the book loses urgency in its final third, and the fact that it contains two long, semi-comic set pieces that fit poorly with the rest of Chambers’s fleeting, nimble narrative. I can overlook the instances in which Hal is too clever, too allusive, too literate to be quite believable. I can forget all of that and can call it great because it changed my life when I was a teenager, and because it lingered in my memory for nearly twenty years, and because the love between Hal and Barry feels as powerful to me now as it did back then.
Katherine D. Stutzman’s fiction has appeared in jmww, The Postcard Press, and Summerset Review, and her book reviews can be found in New Letters, Cider Press Review, and Pleiades.Â She is a graduate of the MFA program at Penn State, and currently lives, writes, and teaches in Philadelphia.